Wis. Oneidas sue to block N.Y. land deal


ALBANY, N.Y. - Just days after Gov. George E. Pataki trumpeted a tentative agreement with the Oneida Indians of New York to end a 31-year-old dispute over a quarter of a million acres in New York, the deal has begun to unravel.

The Oneidas of Wisconsin, a separate branch of the tribe that was shut out of the negotiations, has filed 20 lawsuits against individual landowners in Oneida and Madison counties. In essence, the move makes private citizens bargaining chips in the struggle over the tribe's claim that the state illegally bought its land 200 years ago. The lawsuits have been filed against owners of commercial, agricultural, entertainment and abandoned properties, but no residential property owners.

The deal, which the governor has called a "conceptual agreement" and which would require the approval of the state Legislature and Congress, would give $225 million to the New York Oneidas, who would use some of the money to buy 35,000 acres from willing sellers, many fewer than the 270,000 acres to which they contend they have a legal right. It would also give $250 million to the Wisconsin Oneidas.

The land dispute is taking place in the context of the governor's new authority to give American Indians the right to open casinos, which both branches of the Oneidas have asked for. So far, the governor has rejected the Wisconsin group's request, and, in response to the lawsuits, he and the New York Oneidas sought to portray the Wisconsin Oneidas as greedy interlopers using the lawsuits as leverage for their casino request.

"New Yorkers will not succumb to threats and scare tactics designed to impose the selfish interests of the Wisconsin Oneidas over the interests of our own citizens," the governor said in a statement.

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